By Sam Lampert, Talya Lockman-Fine, and Ellen Kendall
Throughout his presidential campaign and in his role as president-elect, Donald Trump has defended policy stances that, if implemented, would have significant consequences for refugees, not only in the United States but also across the globe. It remains to be seen which policies Trump will pursue while in office. Some, like forcing Syrian refugees already in the U.S. to leave, would be illegal under international refugee law. Others, Trump may choose to abandon under political pressure.
Assuming a scenario where Trump pursues a reversal of the Obama administration’s policies on refugees helps us understand the full potential impact of his presidency on the global refugee situation.
Decreasing numbers: the statistics of policy
First, U.S. refugee admissions could be reduced by 20 percent in the first year under Trump. Over the past 15 years, U.S. refugee caps—set by the president in collaboration with Congress—have remained stable at 70,000 to 85,000 persons per year, with a planned increase to 110,000 persons in 2017. Under President Obama, the U.S. close to doubled caps on refugees from the Near East and South Asia.
Trump could easily reverse this increase, denying admission to 40,000 refugees. Trump could also make good on his much-publicized promises to suspend all immigration from certain (predominantly Muslim) countries, which would affect an additional 40,000 refugees. Beyond the numbers, this means trapping individuals in situations where they face conflict and persecution, or at least narrowing their options to leave. For those who do gain admittance, it is likely that they would have had to face longer and more exhaustive processing periods.
Trump could also halve the U.S. contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, amounting to a 20 percent reduction in the agency’s total funds for global refugee support. The U.S. is currently the world’s leading contributor to UNHCR, and Obama doubled the U.S. contribution during his last term in office. In 2016, the U.S. contributed nearly $1.5 billion to UNHCR, almost five times the amount of the second-largest donor, the European Union. Given frequent statements by Trump regarding the need to protect and support Americans above all others, it is not unreasonable to imagine that, under President Trump, this funding would be reduced to at least pre-2012 levels.
In order to align funding with relative need, UNHCR’s funding model makes use of a global needs assessment, but funding from donor nations is often earmarked to specific countries, regions, or sectors. Under a Trump administration, then, budget cuts to UNHCR could not only force the institution to reduce its programming across the board but could also—if the administration pursued greater earmarking of funds—disproportionately affect populations with greater need but that are perceived as higher risk by the Trump administration.
The effect on foreign relations
In the past, U.S. contributions to international refugee organizations have also helped crowd in additional funding, magnifying further the potential negative impact of a decrease in U.S. support. Beyond supporting UNHCR, the U.S. serves refugees through the array of other U.N. agencies whose mandates touch on refugee issues, as well as through bilateral aid. The U.S. often pairs funding with appeals to other donors to follow suit. In August 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of an additional $87 million in support for refugees and drought victims in Kenya and Somalia included an appeal for similar action from the international community, with the European Commission, Germany, and the United Kingdom also making commitments over the past year. In September 2016, USAID Administrator Gayle Smith announced an additional $133 million in humanitarian assistance for South Sudanese refugees, coupled with a call for contributions during General Assembly meetings.
Trump’s outspoken policy of reducing the cost of supporting immigrants and refugees does not bode well for these financial mobilization efforts.
U.S. leadership has also gone beyond financing: Obama has worked to galvanize public and private sector action—advocacy that may be lost under Trump. As stated by the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in 2014 when outlining the institution’s activities, “We advocate with governments to keep their borders open to those fleeing conflict in neighboring countries. We urge other nations—behind closed doors and in public—to join us and contribute their resources to humanitarian appeals.
This humanitarian diplomacy is every bit as crucial to our mission as the dollars we donate.” In recent months, the current administration’s commitment to this diplomacy has been on full display, most apparently in conversations between President Obama and President Uhuru Kenyatta on Kenya’s announcement of the decision to close Dadaab refugee camp. Obama’s diplomacy has also gone beyond dealing with governments. Rooted in increasingly widespread recognition of the potential power of private sector engagement on refugee issues, Obama issued a “Call to Action” in June 2016 to spur private sector involvement. As of September 2016, the call had resulted in commitments of $650 million from 51 companies, with funding to be directed toward achieving higher targets for humanitarian appeals, increasing resettlement slots and legal alternatives for admission, and expanding access to education and employment. Specific actions by private sector actors include spearheading job training that targets refugees and aligns with market needs and offering refugees direct opportunities for employment.
While the possible downscaling of U.S. support under a Trump presidency would have widespread effects, it could have the largest consequences in lower-income countries, which already host the greatest number of refugees. African nations, for instance, host over a quarter of the global refugee population, and among the top 10 countries hosting the greatest numbers of refugees and displaced persons in 2015, half were African: Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. African countries also dominate the list of refugees and displaced persons as a portion of the national population: Almost one in five people in South Sudan is a refugee or displaced person, compared to one in 5,000 in the U.S. In these countries, declining U.S. financial support is likely to result in poorer conditions for refugee populations, while lower U.S. political commitment—or what Trump’s past rhetoric suggests could even amount to outright hostility—could trigger others to follow suit.
The only way forward is to offset the possible decline in U.S. leadership with renewed commitment from a diverse group of actors.
From an already extensive list including international agencies; international, regional, and national non-governmental organizations; and governments, the growing understanding of refugee situations as inseparable from larger social, political, and economic issues has further increased participation from the private sector and from institutions that have historically focused on a narrower set of development issues.
The potential impacts of a Trump presidency are global and far-reaching. The response must be as well.